The question wasn't as random as he supposed; I've been receiving similar queries from other friends and readers regularly. The great marketing machines of Panasonic, Sony and Samsung have combined with major electronics retailers to work everybody into a flat-panel frenzy — even people who say they don't watch TV. The only problem, of course, is that there happen to be two kinds of flat panels, and both have their pluses and minuses. With that in mind, I've put together a quick rundown of what you should know before going the plasma or LCD route, along with a few pointers.
1. Price-to-size ratio
40- and 42-inch flat-panel TVs such as the Samsung UA40B7100 are now mainstream. (Credit: Samsung)
At present, neither LCD nor plasma TVs are what you'd term a "budget" buy, with the two technologies costing about the same at the sweetspot of 40 to 42 inches. For example, a standard 42-inch plasma and LCD both go for about AU$2000. While plasma prices have remained relatively static in the last 12 months, LCD has continued to drop at sizes under 50 inches. However, larger versions won't cost the same as their plasma equivalents for quite a while.
The reason my friend was looking at a 20-inch TV for his bedroom is that prices for smaller LCD panels at the time were dropping the fastest, with a 20-incher coming in at a little more than AU$1200. Today, 26 inches are about the smallest the mainstream manufacturers sell and they are available for about half that price. Plasmas aren't available in that size, and while 32-inch plasmas were made they were generally of poor quality.
Just remember that a 20-inch screen is pretty small, and you'll have to sit rather close to it. It may be fine for viewing the news and sitcoms in bed, but it's obviously less than ideal for enjoying movies. And a 17-inch model should be reserved for use as a kitchen television or a computer monitor in a home office; while you work, you can watch TV in a little picture-in-picture box in a corner of the display.
Bottom line: 32-inch LCDs offer the greatest value among bedroom sets, and your best bet for the living room is a 40-inch or larger LCD or plasma.
Sony's 70-inch Bravia X-series LCD TV was one of the most expensive TVs on the market, going for a whopping AU$69,999. (Credit: Sony)
A general rule of thumb is that plasmas deliver better home cinema performance than LCDs. Our video guru, David Katzmaier, says the difference is due mostly to the fact that backlighting-based LCD TVs typically can't display black as well as plasmas; it ends up closer to dark grey. That shortcoming decreases the amount of detail you can see in the shadows and ultimately leaves the picture looking — as videophiles would say — less three-dimensional.
The picture quality of both LCD and plasma panels is improving each year, but it can vary significantly from manufacturer to manufacturer, so check our lists of top products. We're nitpicky about performance in our reviews — of course, it's our job — and you should seriously consider our evaluations if you plan on using your set for home theatre viewing. But if you're buying a smaller LCD (26 inches or so) for the kitchen or the bedroom, don't agonise too much over performance.
Lifespan, the number of viewing hours a television provides before dimming to half brightness, used to be one of the biggest advantages LCD has over plasma. Though the numbers vary among the different brands, they now generally last up to around 100,000 hours regardless of the technology.
4. Burning issues
Most modern plasma TVs, such as this Panasonic Viera come with an anti-burn-in function. (Credit: Panasonic)
One of plasma technology's known issues is something called burn-in. It happens when your television shows a still image or an icon for so long that its "ghost" remains on the screen. For example, if a stock ticker or a news crawl continuously runs along the bottom of your display, that strip may be burned into your set. The same applies to watching an excessive amount of standard TV (4:3) on a widescreen (16:9) model; the vertical bars to either side of the picture could become permanent. Manufacturers have taken steps to prevent burn-in, building in screensavers and other technologies. And you can virtually eliminate the danger by not leaving still images on the screen and reducing your contrast setting below 50 per cent for the first 100 hours of usage.
To their credit, LCDs don't suffer from burn-in, nor do they have troubles at high altitudes where the air pressure differential causes plasmas to emit an irritating buzzing sound. Unless you live at the summit of Mt Kosciusko, this is unlikely to be an issue. And if you do, plasma "whine" is likely to be the least of your problems.
5. Viewing free-to-air
Most plasmas and LCDs can display a high-def signal. However, you'll need a model with a resolution of at least 1280x720-pixel to enjoy HD television. Most 50-inch plasmas and most LCDs from 32 inches upwards offer this resolution in addition to 1080p compatibility, which means it will take full-HD content and scale it down. When you're watching HD feeds on a lower-resolution television of 42 inches or smaller, you'll have to sit much closer to notice much of a difference. But it's not always about resolution: take Pioneer's PDP-427XG. Even though the set provided only XGA resolution (1024x768), HD signals looked really good on it.
6. Computers and video games
Most plasma and LCD TVs can double as computer monitors; some even offer a DVI or D-Sub port for optimal video quality. They'll also hook up to a game console without any problems. So which technology is better for these purposes? From a performance standpoint, it's hard to pick a winner, but because of plasma's burn-in risk, LCD is the safer choice for computer work and gaming. We pick the best models for gaming here.